Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The General, the Rabbi, and the Roman

I just came across something interesting.

In his “War of the Jews,” Josephus describes how he attempted to defend the town of Jotapata. Convinced that the town would fall to the Romans, he suggested that he should sneak out and raise an army to lift the siege, but the townspeople refused to let him go. When the town fell, Josephus was captured. When he met Vespasian, the general in command of the Romans, he predicted that Vespasian would become Emperor. When this happened two years later, Josephus was released and granted full Roman citizenship, land, and new wife.

This reminded me of something I had learned in school.

The gemara (Gittin 56a-b) tells the story of how when Yerushalayim was besieged by the Romans, R’ Yochanan ben Zakai suggested surrendering. He was overruled, and so had his students sneak him out in a coffin. Once outside the city walls he went to Vespasian’s tent, where he predicted that the general would become Emperor. When this happened, R’ Yochanan was granted favors by the new Emperor, including the right to establish a yeshiva in Yavneh and transfer the Sanhedrin there.

 The two stories are strikingly similar. It’s hard to swallow either as historically accurate, but Josephus’s story was written by the man himself, only decades after the event. The gemara was written centuries later. Which seems more likely:
  1.  Nearly identical stories happened to Josephus and to R’ Yochanan ben Zakkia – and in both cases Vespasian was surprised by the prediction, apparently having forgotten whichever came first.
  2.  Josephus attributed R’ Yochanan ben Zakkei’s story to himself.
  3. Josephus’s story, having been written down, was in circulation in the Roman world, and particularly in the Jewish Roman world. Passed around orally by the mostly illiterate public, at some point, the story was misattributed to R’ Yochanan ben Zakkai, and this version was canonized by the gemara.

I’m voting for #3.

Everyone’s A Slave…

“You’re either a slave to Hashem or you’re a slave to your taivos.” How many times have we heard that? It's one of the standard kiruv sound bites, and is a particularly grating one. It sounds profound, is meant to suggest that no one can be free, and that, as long as we’re all slaves, being a slave to God is better than being a slave to our desires. I think it’s time to put this banal assertion to rest.

Before I get to deconstructing the logic of the claim, here’s something funny. I wanted to find out where the idea comes from, so I typed “a slave to god or a slave to your desires” into Google. The first result is a passage from the New Testament, Romans 6:16-18:

Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.”

I went through a few pages of results and tried variations of the search phrase, and it really seems that this idea comes from the New Testament. How funny that Rebbonim and Roshei Yeshiva are giving mussar shmusen based on something written by the apostle Paul!

The claim itself is a false dichotomy. It suggests that there are only two choices. Either one does as Hashem commands, or one is a slave to his “taivos,”  which literally mean “desires” but in this context means “base desires:” pleasure, money, power, etc. As someone recently pointed out, even if it’s true that everyone is a slave to something, why would it have to be base desires? Someone could be a slave to his compassion, or his sense of justice, to caring for his family or to improving his community.

Hidden in the claim is another sound bite, the often-heard canard that without God, there is no morality, so of course if one doesn't enslave himself to God he will be overwhelmed by his base desires.  It’s not true that without God there’s no morality, but, more importantly, the notion that if someone isn't a slave to God he’ll be only concerned with fulfilling his base desires is demonstrably false. It’s just not true that non-religious people’s lives are non-stop orgies.

The corollary is also not true. Religious people are not free of their desires by virtue of being religious. There are religious people who are overwhelmed by their base drives. The idea is that you must be a slave to something; being a slave to your base desires is bad; so be a slave to God, which will prevent you from being enslaved by your desires. Yet one can be a slave to God AND a slave to his desires, so what is gained by being a slave to God?

In addition to being a false dichotomy, it also uses an equivocation fallacy. Being a slave to an intelligent Being and being a “slave” to your desires is not the same thing. Webster defines “slave” as:

1 : a person held in servitude as the chattel of another
2 : one that is completely subservient to a dominating influence

Neither is a  good situation to be in, but the first one is worse. Someone who is a slave to his desires may have serious problems, may even destroy his life, but he can, in theory, overcome his difficulties and regain control. Someone who is chattel is no longer someone in control of his own fate. He is property, just a thing to be used as his master sees fit.

I’m thinking about going through all the kiruv sound bites like this, and then create an index. Here's a short list:

  • You’re either a slave to Hashem or you’re a slave to your taivos.
  • Without Hashem, everything is hefker (there’s no morality without God).
  • There are no questions, only answers.
  • Our grandparents died for their beliefs.

And maybe some of the proofs?:

  • There’s an unbroken mesorah.
  • Our sifrie Torah are exactly the same as ones that are hundreds of years old / the same as what was handed to Moshe on Har Sinia,
  • The Kuzari.
  • The four-animal proof.

Any more?

Friday, May 31, 2013

Biblical Record, Excerpt, Bamidbar 13-14

From the official biblical record, as recorded by a duly appointed stenographer, Bamidbar 13-14


Gen. Moshe Rabeinu: Gentlemen, what happened?  I’ve been hearing rumors that it didn’t go well.

Maj. Shaphat Ben-Chori: Sir, it’s all there in our report. The land is beautiful, but the cities are heavily fortified. As you can see from the grapes we brought back, everything grows big, and that includes the people. We saw a group of men, they must have been thirty feet tall! I recommend we exercise extreme caution.

Lt. Calev Ben-Yefunah: We can do it Sir! Give me a platoon, I’ll clear out the whole country!

Maj. Ben-Chori: I’m afraid that’s not realistic, Sir. We’re going to need artillery to knock out the city defenses and close-air support to deal with the giants. Even then, I’d say odds are they’ll crush us like a bug. Anakite armor could roll over us like a man stepping on a grasshopper.

Capt. Gadi Ben-Susi:  We may have to abort the entire operation, head back to Egypt.

Lt. Yeshoshau Ben-Nun: General, Sir, with all due respect I think that my superiors are overstating the danger. The land is great, I think it’s well worth the risk.

Lt. Ben-Yefunah: Give me a squad, Sir, and I’ll take their capitol by nightfall!

Gen. Rabeinu: That’s hardly realistic…

Lt. Ben-Yefunah: Give me permission, Sir, and I’ll conquer the whole land by myself. Just say the word!

Maj. Ben-Chori: Lt., have you been drinking?

Lt. Ben-Yefunah: I’ll rip them apart with my bare hands! I don’t need air support! The President said we could do it, and I believe in him! Starts singing patriotic song.

Gen. Rabeinu: Sgt., please remove the Lt. and take him to the stockade.

Lt. Ben-Yefunah is removed from the room by MPs. The phone rings.

Gen. Rabeinu: Yes Mr. President?

President Gd: What does the recon team report?

Gen. Rabeinu: They say we can expect heavy opposition, and victory is in serious doubt. We may have to abort the whole mission.

President Gd: WHAT?! After everything I’ve done for this nation, they don’t think I can lead us to victory? Why, I ought to have them lined up against a wall and shot! In fact, I ought to have all defeatists shot! I’ll notify the secret police. How dare anyone doubt me!

Gen. Rabeinu: Sir, don’t you think that’s a bit extreme? What will the Egyptians think? They saw you lead us out of  Egypt and they know that you’re administration is still in power. They’ll say that you’re executing people because you can’t lead us to victory, and you’re hoping that people will be too scared to call you on it.

President Gd: Oh, fine. I won’t have the recon team executed. But I’m not going to help. Fat chance you have of winning without me!

Editors note: An assault was attempted the next day, but was pushed back by elements of the Caanani and Amaleki Defense Forces. This may have be due to the inability and/or unwillingness of Gen. Rabeinu to oversee the operation, as he felt his first loyalty was to the President. Or it may simply be that the local defense was too formidable for the Israelite forces, as the recon report suggested it would be.  Another attempt wouldn’t be made for an entire generation.

Yated Endorses Palestinian Policy

In this week’s Yated, the editor bemoans the insufficient respect accorded to the Gedolim by their political opponents. He writes, “…how dare they attack the Torah, its leaders and its followers with wide smiles on their faces. How do they pontificate in all varieties of media, promoting their own political futures by bashing shomrei Torah umitzvos? “ and says that it doesn’t matter if accusations are true, any criticism of the Gedolim is wrong, “The complaint against [Miriam] was not that she spoke untruths and not that she fabricated a scandal about Moshe, but, rather, that she lacked the requisite humility, reverence and awe when discussing the gadol hador, the k’dosh Hashem, theav hanevi’im.”

The notion that someone should be immune from criticism because of their position is perverse and dangerous. If anything, those in positions of power are the ones who we need to be the most critical of, as mistakes they make have the potential for catastrophic consequences.

What’s really interesting, though, is that apparently the Palestinian government agrees with the Yated that one must never be disrespectful of one’s leaders.

According to this article,a 26year-old Palestinian was sentenced to a year in prison for posting a picture of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with a humorous caption. He was sentenced for “cursing the president,” which apparently is illegal in Palestine.

The thing is, he didn’t “curse” the president, he was merely insufficiently respectful.

This is exactly the sort of thing advocated in the editorial. Not prison per se, but the attitude that making light of a leader is a grave offense. Apparently Israel’s opponents are, at least in this area, morally refined, while the non-Chareidi Israelis are disrespectful cretins. Either that, or enforcing unquestioning respect of leaders is an element of all repressive societies, and the Yated is just doing its part to shape public opinion and enforce unquestioning respect.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Scientists’ Cabal

I realized recently that the Chareid world HAS to adopt the attitude that anyone who questions the party line is part of a conspiracy to destroy religion in general and Yiddishkeit in particular. It’s the logical conclusion of their belief system:

1. Torah is obviously true – Avraham Avinu realized that Hashem runs the world while sitting by himself in a cave at three years old.
1a. Given that Torah/Yiddishkeit is obviously true, anyone who seriously questions any part of it must be trying to poke holes in it in order to justify his desire to disregard the mitzvos.
2. Huge chunks of modern science call traditional understandings of the Torah into question.
2a. It must be that the scientists are trying to poke holes in Yiddishkeit  order to justify their desire to disregard the ratzon Hashem.
C. There is a huge conspiracy among the world’s scientists to actively discredit religion.

If you need more proof of the conspiracy, well, a huge percentage of scientists are atheists or deists. Obviously they’re trying to justify their beliefs by asking questions on Judaism. It CAN’T be the other way around, that their scientific knowledge and inquiries lead them to become atheists and deists, because, as stated in premise 1, it is so obvious that the Torah is true that even a three year old could figure it out on his own!

It follows that anyone who reconciles what we know about the how the world works and what traditional sources say in favor of the real world is part of the conspiracy and/or has been seduced by it. 

Friday, January 11, 2013

Christian Medrashim

I’ve been reading James Kugel’s “How to Read the Bible.” In it he goes through tanach and provides a basic introduction to biblical criticism, which he contrasts with the traditional interpretations. He’s a good writer, and manages to make what is an inherently dry subject, if not exactly exciting, at least very readable. I highly recommend it.

One thing that I found interesting is that, in addition to the traditional Jewish interpretations of the text, the midrashm and meforshim, here and there he also cites Christian exegesis, particularly how episodes in the Old Testament were interpreted to be foreshadowing Jesus.

Akeidas Yitzchak is seen as foreshadowing the sacrifice of Jesus. Yitcahk is Avraham’s son, just as Jesus is God’s son. Yitzchak carries the wood for the korban on his back, just as Jesus carried his wooden cross. The ram was a substitute sacrifice for Yitzchak, just as Jesus was a substitute sacrifice for humanity. The ram’s head was caught in thorns, just as a crown of thorns was placed on Jesus’ head. All these similarities can’t be coincidences, right?!

When the Bnei Yisroel were fighting with Amalek, Moshe stood on a hill and lifted his arms. While his arms were outstretched, they were winning, but when his arms dropped, they began to lose. To keep his arms in the air, he had Aron and Chur help hold them up. This episode is explained by the midrashim as Moshe reminding the people to think of Hashem, which in turn made them victorious. But really, did they need the visual reminder? The Christian interpretation is better. Moshe wasn’t pointing to Heaven, he was making the sign of the cross with his outstretched arms. He even had a follower on each side, just like Jesus during the crucifixion. Moshe wasn’t reminding the Bnie Yisroel to think of God, but was invoking the power of Jesus’ sacrifice, which caused God  to help them win.

It’s fascinating is how plausible the Christian interpretations are. As much or more than many midrashim I’ve heard. Yet I have no doubt that if I had told these interpretations to my rabbeim way back when, they would have been dismissed as, at best, some clever people picking out a few things that they could twist to fit their agenda. But midrashim, those are all the Truth!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Did You Make a Bracha On Your Computer?

By the logic of the commonly-used reason for saying brachos, you probably should have.

My daughter had been learning about making brachos in school, and today she told me that eating without making a bracha is stealing from Hashem.

The idea behind this notion is that everything is Hashem’s, and we need to ask Him permission before eating His food. To do otherwise is to use His food without His permission, which is stealing. It makes sense, up to a point, but raises several problems.

1. If everything is Hashem’s, why single out food? Shouldn’t we need to ask His permission for everything we use? We do make a shechiyanu on significant things, like new expensive clothes, but who makes a bracha upon opening a new roll of paper towels, or before viewing a new photo album? It seems that we single out food because of a single comment by R’ Akiva in mesechtas Brachos, but there’s no logical reason given why food should be different. It’s just that the gemara happens to be discussing brachos on food, and R’ Akiva made his comment in that context.

2. The text of the brachos doesn’t say anything about permission. They don’t even say anything about thanking Hashem, which is another reason often given for making brachos. All they do is acknowledge God as a the One Who caused the food to grow.

3. It’s generally accepted that the custom of brachos were established in the time of Ezra. If eating without making brachos is stealing, that means that everyone before Ezra’s time was guilty of stealing from Hashem.

I know, big picture, it doesn’t matter, but like fans who get upset when an author violates the rules of his fantasy setting, I’d at like some internal consistency.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Infomercials for the Frum World

I was watching TV last night when this commercial came on:

It’s as ad for what’s essentially two frying pans hinged together so that you can flip pancakes or eggs by flipping the whole pan over. It’s actually not a bad idea. But, in true infomercial style, it first shows a bunch of incompetent people poking at their eggs with spatulas and making a mess of their pancakes and splattering batter all over the pan and the stove. It’s supposed to provide a contrast with how easy their product makes it to flip a pancake, but just left me wondering who these people were who had such trouble doing something as simple as making pancakes. You find this sort of thing in every infomercial.

It occurred to me that there’s another place you find these sorts of characters: people who you’d never meet in the real world, people who behave in inexplicable and moronic ways in order to be contrasted with something superior in the second half of the story. We run into these characters all the times in the divrie torah floating around the frum world which contrast “us” with “them.” In these divrei torah we hear about “the goyim,” valueless, immoral people who sleep with a different person every night and indulge every whim. These people are then contrasted with the righteous, upstanding, holy people of the frum world, and we are shown how torah umitzvos makes us so much better than everyone else.

The immoral people described in the divrei torah do exist, just like there really are people so incompetent that they’d make a huge mess trying to make a pancake. But they are a tiny, tiny, tiny minority.

So why do these characters exist in infomercials and divrei torah? Because both are trying to sell us something. The infomercial is trying to sell us a product. The dvar torah is trying to sell us a lifestyle.

Caveat emptor

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Is Judaism the Easy Way Out?

It is often said that those who reject religion do so because it is the easier option. With the rejection of Judasim, it’s said, goes the obligation to daven three times a day, the obligation to learn, the obligation to dress in accordance with halacha, and many other obligations. (Even, it’s claimed, the obligation to be moral, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

Something similar is said about ancient pagans. Pagans, it’s claimed, don’t have to worry about following rules or being moral, because whatever they may want to do, they can find a god that will approve. And just look at what awful, immoral things pagans did in the worship of their gods! Temple prostitutes, ecstatic orgies, human sacrifice, even the sacrifice of their own children! Pagans sound like horrible, immoral people looking for excuses to do whatever they please and engaging in the worst sort of behaviors while calling those behaviors holy.

Let’s look at it for a moment from the pagans’ point of view.

From the ancient pagans point of view, the point of view of all the evil ovdie avoda zara of tanach, it is Judaism that is the easier option. The pagan must worry every day about the wishes of the numerous gods in the local pantheon. He has to try to do what he can to strengthen his gods against the assaults and machinations of foreign gods. When doing business with foreigners, he has to be careful not to offend their gods, and has to learn the proper rituals so that those local gods might favor him with success. A Jewish person only has to worry about the wishes of a single god, and arrogantly declares that the gods of foreigners are merely figments of their imaginations to whom no respect needs to be paid.

The pagan was personally involved in the rituals of his worship, whether through spiritual journeys taken under the influence of hallucinogenics or through metaphor or sympathetic magic in sleeping with temple prostitutes to encourage the fertility of his fields and family. The Jew merely brings an animal to the Temple for the priests to process, or even worse, mumbles some words out of a book and calls it a day. Those are hardly the deeply personal, life-changing experiences of pagan worship.

Most significant, the pagan is called upon to sacrifice for the greater good that which is most dear to him. Even within the Jewish tradition, we see that the more valuable the sacrifice, the greater the favor it finds with God. The midrashim say that Cain’s sacrifice was rejected and Hevel’s accepted because Cain brought a sacrifice from the worst of his crops, while Hevel brought one of his best rams. What is more precious, more valuable than a child? Can there be any greater sacrifice than a parent giving up their child for the greater good of their people? For a parent, even sacrificing himself is nothing compared to sacrificing his child.

As horrific as child sacrifice is, we can appreciate the motivation behind it. Sacrifice was usually seen as a tit-for-tat exchange with the gods. If you give them something valuable, they will do something valuable for you. If you truly believe that a great sacrifice – the greatest sacrifice- is necessary to get the gods to bring rain, or bring back the sun, or to defeat your enemies, so that your entire people may survive  - something that is very, very valuable and requires a sacrifice of equal proportion – then, as awful as it is, sacrificing your child is what you must do. How selfish it would be to watch the world burn in order to save your child!

Yet here are your neighbors, the Jews, who have as part of their sacred literature a story about how God substituted a ram for a child sacrifice and admonishes against ever sacrificing children. Here is a religion that views child sacrifice not only as unnecessary, but paints this ultimate sacrifice as an evil act. Who wouldn’t want to worship a god who wants only animals, one who will never call on you to make a bitterly painful, heart-breaking sacrifice for the greater good?

Surely this is the easy way out.